Hayley Williams's Evolution From Pop-Punk Pioneer To Fearless Genre Explorer

Tracing her path from Paramore to 'Petals for Armor'

By Grant Sharples

Paramore, despite no longer making pop-punk music, have become one of the quintessential bands in the genre. Their early catchy, cathartic choruses on songs such as “crushcrushcrush” and “That’s What You Get” are representative of the entire Warped-Tour era of the 2000s. But although this heavily male-dominated, often misogynistic scene consisted of plenty of bands wishing for their ex-girlfriends’ deaths amid other violent fantasies, Paramore defied its patriarchal penchant.

Ringleader Hayley Williams has reckoned with her own share of internalized misogyny and eventually decided to stop performing “Misery Business” live because of its infamous lyric “Once a whore, you’re nothing more.” She has brought that critical self-analysis to her own solo career, which she’s spent 2020 rolling out across both music and visuals.

When record executives wanted to make Williams a solo artist at age 14, she refused and started a pop-punk band instead. Unlike the catalogs of many of her band’s peers, each entry in Paramore’s discography has expanded upon and differentiated itself from what preceded it, evolving from hard guitars to more mature motifs and eventually an ‘80s synth-pop sound. Now, with the impending release of Williams’s debut solo album, Petals for Armor, she has evolved yet again, showing a propensity for minimalist indie-pop with hints of funk, folk, and, of course, emo. Williams has been somewhat of a musical chameleon, constantly shapeshifting and adopting new sounds, mastering one only to abandon it and try another.

Though Petals for Armor is due out in full May 8, Williams has preceded it with two exploratory EPs. The 10 songs released so far — and what came before them — showcase how far she’s come in the past 15 years.

All We Know Is Falling (2005)

When Paramore first started in 2004, its members were all incredibly young. Drummer Zac Farro had freshly turned 15 by the time their debut, All We Know Is Falling, released, and Williams was only 16. But they had a vision. Bassist Jeremy Davis had exited the band by the time the recording process started, and, feeling deserted, Paramore wrote a record that mostly centers around the departure. The shadow casted on the red couch on the artwork symbolizes Davis’s absence, and much of Williams’s lyrical material finds her merging both Davis’s exit and her parents’ divorce. “We’ve tried so hard to understand / But we can’t / We held the world out in our hands / But you ran away,” Williams belts on the album’s opener over distorted, palm-muted guitars and punchy drums. The LP’s closing track, “My Heart,” is unequivocally the most scene Paramore has ever sounded, with guitarist and co-writer Josh Farro screamo-ing throughout the song’s latter half.  Their next offering, however, would showcase Williams in a poppier light.

Riot! (2007)

Two years later, Paramore returned with Riot!, featuring some of the group’s most popular songs to date. It brought them a wealth of commercial success, giving them the pathway to become music-industry mainstays. “Misery Business” was featured in Guitar Hero World Tour, and “That’s What You Get” was in Rock Band 2, lending them massive exposure alongside their first Grammy nomination in 2008 for Best New Artist (Amy Winehouse took home the gold). This was also the era in which Williams embraced the pop in pop-punk. Every track on Riot! has an unforgettable hook — the infectious “whoa” choruses of both “That’s What You Get” and “Misery Business” are a prime examples. Williams’s contagious melodies helped lock in radio play on both pop and alternative stations and showcased that they were capable of crossing genre boundaries.

Brand New Eyes (2009)

Now, with the world’s attention turned to them, Paramore followed up with the warmer, more mature Brand New Eyes. Opener “Careful” sees Williams’s passionate delivery of the line “You’ve got to reach out a little more,” singing of carving her own path to find happiness instead of waiting for others to help her navigate. Everything builds into a break with harmonic guitars, and the drums sound so tautly coiled that they could burst at any minute. “Playing God” pays homage to Jimmy Eat World with arpeggiated, reverb-kissed guitar harmonies, all leading up to one of the album’s most gripping lyrics: “Next time you point a finger / I might have to bend it back and break it off.” “The Only Exception” also captured more complex musical elements, as all the loud instruments and belting vocals were replaced with a steady acoustic guitar in 6/8 time and Williams’s hushed performance.

Paramore (2013)

After the departure of the Farro brothers, Paramore became a trio composed of Williams, returning bassist Davis, and then-touring guitarist Taylor York, who took on the role of primary composer. As such, 2013’s Paramore is a complete reintroduction. Williams described this era as a time when they “just really wanted to enjoy the process of making an album,” and it definitely sounds like they’re having fun here. Paramore also holds some of Williams’s most memorable lyrics, as her writing acquired an added depth. “Part II,” the sequel to Riot!’s “Let the Flames Begin,” opens with modulated guitars that sound more like Diiv, as Williams sings the lines “What a shame we all remain / Such fragile, broken things / A beauty half betrayed / Butterflies with punctured wings.” One of the LP’s big singles, “Still Into You,” remains one of the few love songs Williams has ever written. “I should be over all the butterflies, but I’m into you,” she sings with her signature impeccable range. Her work on Paramore delineates a completely new era where both Williams and fans grew up simultaneously.

After Laughter (2017)

With 2017’s After Laughter, Paramore fully embraced the pop and cast aside the punk. Everything about this era of the group revolved around ‘80s synths, dance beats, and calypso percussion. Davis left once again, but founding member Zac Farro reprised his role as drummer, and his rhythmic grooves lend the album a bounciness and levity unprecedented for a Paramore record. Neon instrumentation aside, Williams became an even sharper lyricist, becoming notably more transparent about her mental health. She used swimming pools as a metaphor for her depression and rose-tinted glasses to describe her waning optimism.  Williams’s openness to examine and discuss her depression would become a major through line in the solo turn she took next.

Petals for Armor (2020)

The syncopated rhythms from After Laughter return with a more subdued hue on Petals for Armor, a darker and more ominous album that Williams told The New York Times “now feels like a beginning.” She also sings in an atypically much lower, quieter register. Produced by York, Williams finds a fitting, minimalist backdrop for her visceral lyrics. “Rage is a quiet thing,” she sings on “Simmer,” suspending the line’s second half as if containing the rage itself. “Leave It Alone” and the excellent Boygenius collaboration, “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” are also dramatically hushed. It’s clear that Petals for Armor represents Williams’s autonomy over her creative expression. Through it all, she’s donning petals as her armor, indicating her strength through vulnerability.

“I really thought, I’m going to write a bunch of R&B songs for fun,” she has said about the album’s origins. Once Petals for Armor has been released, maybe Williams will move on to a different genre, or continue to explore multiple at once. Her vast transformation from pop-punk pioneer to indie-pop icon and rhythmic explorer has shown she can do it all.